‘Elephant in the room’: Jordanian women and equal rights

Recognition of ‘Jordanian women’ in the kingdom’s constitution ignited a brawl in parliament and debate over their status under the law.

Women hold placards denouncing violence against women in Amman, Jordan
Demonstrators protest violence against women in the capital Amman in July 2020 [File: Andre Pain/EPA-EFE]

Amman, Jordan – A political feud in parliament erupted into a fistfight during a discussion to add “Jordanian women” to a constitutional clause on equal rights.

The new amendment, which passed with 94 votes of 120 parliamentarians present last month, changed the title of the constitution’s second chapter to “Rights and duties of Jordanian men and Jordanian women”, adding the feminine pronoun for Jordanians, “al-urduniat”.

Some activists argue the amendment is useless; only an escape route to avoid the real legal changes the constitution needs to properly support women.

“It’s running away from the elephant in the room,” said Salma Nims, the Jordanian National Commission for Women (JNCW) secretary-general, referring to continuously neglected demands to add “sex” to Article 6 of the constitution, which now only bans discrimination based on “race, language, and religion”.

Nims added the recent amendment is not legally binding, given the title of a constitutional chapter “has no legal effect”.

Minister of Political and Parliamentary Affairs Musa Maaytah said in Jordan’s state media that adding “Jordanian women” came in “honour and respect to women”.

Nims questioned Maaytah’s reasoning, responding, “What? I am not asking you to honour me by using a term. It is not about honouring women, this is a constitution, you use it for legal purposes.”

Others fear the amendment will have long-term legal repercussions, specifically impacting Jordan’s family affairs laws – based on Islamic legal teachings and the nationality law – fearing the expansion of eligibility for Jordanian citizenship.

“The addition of ‘Jordanian women’ is dangerous in the long run for society, and for the family,” said former lawmaker and member of the Islamic Action Front (IAF) Hayat al-Musami.

While it is now unclear if the amendment’s effects will be far-reaching or trivial, the discussions it has aroused reveal the intense politicisation of women, the deep divisions in the women’s movement, and the conflicts that arise when women’s rights are brought to the table in Jordan.

Women’s rights are “now linked with anti-Islam and anti-national identity”, Oraib Rantawi, director of Al Quds Centre for Political Studies, told Al Jazeera.

“The more politicisation of this concept – the more it is linked to Islam and national-identity –  the more difficult the women’s mission in the country will be.”

Equity or equality?

Jordan’s constitution delegates all issues involving the Personal Status Law of Muslims to specific courts, which handle family-related cases based on interpretations of Islamic, or Sharia, law.

The Sharia courts do not treat women as equals before the law, writes Jordanian activist Rana Husseini in her recent book, Years of Struggle — The Women’s Movement In Jordan.

However, some see the treatment of women in Sharia courts not as “inequality” but as “equity”.

“We want to keep the social status law as is, based on Sharia. What we call for even more than equality is the idea of equity,” Dima Tahboub, former MP and spokeswoman for the IAF, told Al Jazeera.

Tahboub noted her party’s concern that the addition of “Jordanian women” will lead to international calls for “total and absolute equality”, which contradicts with the “positive discrimination” towards women in Islamic laws and the constitution.

“The idea about equity is that you give a person in a certain social or economic status the best option so he/she can perform his role in society in the best way,” Tahboub said. She referenced the quota system for women in Jordan’s election law and the inheritance law “where in certain cases women can take more shares than men”.

Sauda Salem, a lawyer with 37 years of practice in Jordan’s courts, noted the ways in which Islamic laws “distinguish” women.

For instance, according to Salem, the laws give women the right of alimony “regardless of how rich or poor the man is, it says it is the man’s responsibility to provide for women”. If the man fails to provide the alimony after separation, the responsibility goes to the woman’s father, noted Salem.

Al-Musami said: “We believe these differences are good for the family, for the community. They are good for women and good for the community of Arab people.”


The women’s movement in Jordan is often “demonised” as part of a Western agenda, which has instigated divisions and stalled progress, said Nims.

“We have a problem with NGO-isation, which is something that happens all over the world,” she told Al Jazeera.

Since the kingdom’s ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 1992, it has faced pushback predominately from conservatives who claim the convention violates Sharia law and enforces a Western agenda.

“There is an international agenda based on CEDAW, which means complete equality between men and women … In the future, they want there to be no differences between genders in any law,” al-Musami said. “What they are asking for will make our families unstable.”

However, Nims criticised the IAF’s role in perpetuating gender discrimination found in Jordan’s laws.  “What is the best way to delegitimise these demands? It is by saying that they are Westernised frameworks.”

Rana Husseini, a senior journalist with more than 25 years advocating for women’s rights in Jordan and the region, told Al Jazeera, “Whatever you do, whatever you work on, they will tell you that you are a Western agent.”

Husseini also commented on the division within Jordan’s women’s movement: “The women’s movement is not united. I feel that there is competition, everyone wants to be the person, the individual to make the change.”

‘A special case’

There are fears among the amendment’s conservative critics that it will expand citizenship eligibility and shift the kingdom’s demographic balance towards Palestinians. This will require Jordan to become the “alternative homeland”, barring thousands of refugees from returning to their ancestral homes in occupied Palestine.

The kingdom’s nationality law stipulates that Jordanian women married to non-Jordanian men are not allowed to pass their citizenship to their children.

Despite the lack of access to public services and labour market restrictions thousands face without nationality, the discourse to amend the law is morphed with the Palestinian struggle. Debates over changes to the nationality law are frequently fuelled by fears the decision will “feed into the right-wing Israeli plans of finding a substitute homeland for Palestinians in Jordan”, Husseini noted in her book.

“I’m with women giving the nationality to the children, but Jordan is a special case given the topic of Palestinians and the right of return,” lawyer and legal expert Sauda Salem told Al Jazeera. “Even though a lot of Western countries do this, it doesn’t mean we should expect Jordan to do the same.”

She added with the addition of “Jordanian women”, the woman is now “equal to the man, including in the nationality”. “The most important thing about adding this word is the fact that the former law might be deleted,” Salem stated, referring to the line that states nationality is passed only to the children of Jordanian men.

During the contentious debate over the recent amendment, legislators added a clause that now requires two-thirds of parliament to change the nationality law, noted lawyer and member of the Jordan Bar Association Nour Imam.

Nims highlighted the “increasingly nationalistic bigotry” in Jordan. “The hate speech, towards Jordanians of Palestinian origin, is scary,” she said, attributing it to the refusals to amend the nationality law.

“I find this humiliating to Palestinians themselves,” Nims said. “To accuse a Palestinian that he or she is ready to give up their right of return by simply gaining another nationality.”

“If you are so worried about the Palestinian cause, why don’t you have a problem with men marrying Palestinian women and giving them the nationality? It’s OK if it’s a woman they bring to Jordan?”

‘Just to divert attention’

The women’s rights movement in Jordan is frequently found at the pinnacle of contentious debate. Jordanians now find themselves living amid unprecedented unemployment, without a healthy political outlet for their frustration – leaving women too often as the scapegoat.

“When you look around as a man and you do not feel that your masculinity is being expressed through your ability to have a job, to make decisions about the politics of the country, or to voice your opinion, the only place left to practice your power is inside the household,” said Nims.

“’Let them get busy worrying about control over women,’ they say,” she added.

Rana Husseini said the controversy over the recent constitutional amendment was “a play just to divert attention from other things”.

Nims also noted how some activists believe the amendment was staged. “Everyone was busy with the changes that have no impact at all, while the changes that do have impact did not have enough discussion or analysis.”

Dema Matruk Aloun, a women’s rights activist and professor of private law at Hashemite University, said the amendment was simply to “beautify the picture” – lacking real legal benefits for women.

She noted the deeply ingrained social attitudes towards women that need to be addressed.

“Men are afraid of strong women. In Jordan … it’s a fact that men want to be one step higher than women. The change must start from the society itself, people themselves,” Aloun told Al Jazeera.

The recent amendment, she said, “is like a fire destroyed an important part of your home and you just put a big, nice couch in the centre of the room … You are not seeing the destroyed debris around you, you do not smell it”.

“Smell it.”

Source: Al Jazeera